I was down to my last bet, a two-dollar show wager on a horse called Raspberry Affair. She’s the kind of horse that has one sustained run in her. A switch is flipped and she blasts off, swallowing tiring horses down the stretch., She was a long shot because her one run was never enough to win.
But I didn’t need her to win, just to finish third.
A show bet pays garbage, anywhere from a few cents to a buck fifty or more depending on the odds and the amount of the money in the show pool of the top three finishers. Basically, you want long shots to finish one, two, or three, to max out out your small winnings. Also, you get back your original two dollar bet. This is a scared man’s bet. I was no longer betting exactas, which predict the top two finishers in the exact order and pay off. But I was busted and physically hungry. I needed to win this race, then go all-in on the next race and the next, just to grab a meal and a dollop of gasoline to get home—home being a pay-by-the-week motel. It was payday. I was tired of the factory; the racism, bigotry, and misogyny. The low wages and smell of grease on my clothes and skin. And the thunderous hydraulic presses, which I still hear on my dark days. I was going to go on a roll at the track and quit that fucking place. I was going to to buy my son extravagant gifts to make up for the ones he never received. I was lost as a parent, and he knew it. But, honestly, the why didn’t really matter when I was sitting in my chair staring at the wall of flat screens with tracks from across the country pulling me in deeper and deeper. My phone was turned off. My heart was turned off. No thoughts of family, friends, or failures. It was just a racing program and endless cigarettes and coffee.
I sat there stone-faced as the jockey took the whip to Raspberry Affair. The mare responded by taking off like a turtle. She had nothing for this race, and finished far back. I crumpled my last shot, a prayer stamped on a betting slip, and tossed on the carpet for the thousandth time over the years. I was lucky enough that my truck made it back to the motel. At least it wasn’t a courthouse parking garage, where I’d sleep a year later, a place where I’d learn the real definition of cold.
The grand lie of gambling is that we never think we’ll lose. No matter if we’ve lost thirty days in a row, we believe the next time will be the time we get our losses back. I attended a couple of G.A. meetings over the years. Folks told their sad stories. All I felt was disgust. “Keep coming back.” I kept coming back to the track. Seeing those thoroughbreds flying on the dirt with my rent on the line. I wanted to be there. I wanted to risk everything. All I wanted was to win, win every single race to prove to people that I wasn’t a failure, that I didn’t have to con family and friends for cash like I did when I’d lie about car problems or electric bills to get some money to bet with. I wanted everyone to know that I was a successful gambler.
Except I wasn’t. I was a terrible one. Some gamblers think that we secretly want to lose, to punish ourselves. Well, I mixed ketchup and mayonnaise packets together and ate that punishment for dinner.
Nine years later, I was at King’s Island with my daughter, Darlene. Years of therapy and a major dose of self-determination had paid off like a massive exacta. See, I wasn’t the guy eating condiments or betting on longshots like Raspberry Affair anymore. I wasn’t the guy who abandoned his children and all responsibility to chase the dime. I was even on good terms with my son, Zach, with whom I spent the past Christmas down in his hometown of Louisville.
Darlene and I rode a ride a called Congo Falls. You go up an incline in a plastic boat and slide down a watery hill, splashing nose-first into the rapids. Inching up the initial ascent, Darlene asked me to scoot closer to her. Then she wrapped one of her legs around mine and asked me to place my hand on top of hers on the handle. We were one as we climbed and climbed and climbed.
Chris Milam lives in Hamilton, Ohio. His stories have appeared in Lost Balloon, Jellyfish Review, WhiskeyPaper, Sidereal Magazine, formercactus, Train Lit, Molotov Cocktail, and elsewhere. He was nominated for Best Small Fictions 2018. You can find him on Twitter @Blukris.